University of Vermont

University Communications

John Irving Reading Fills Fleming Auditorium

Release Date: 10-20-2010

Author: Thomas James Weaver
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John Irving and Peter Shumlin

Best-selling novelist John Irving stands with Vermont gubernatorial candidate Peter Shumlin before taking the stage for a reading on Oct. 18.

As a reading by one of America's most esteemed and beloved novelists or as political event, John Irving's appearance at UVM's Fleming Museum last week was a rather low-key affair. Publicity was minimal, but the Fleming auditorium was full to capacity and then some to hear Irving read from a work in progress.

Before the literary business, though, Irving shared his thoughts on political matters -- expressing unabashed support for Democrat Peter Shumlin in the Vermont gubernatorial race. Longtime friends and neighbors in southern Vermont, Irving said that Shumlin's parents were the first people he met when he moved to Putney in 1967. Though Irving disagreed with Shumlin on the state's Act 60 educational funding reform, he strongly agrees with his advocacy for same-sex marriage, and it is a central reason why he is speaking out on the senator's behalf. Introducing Irving, Shumlin paid tribute to the author's dogged work ethic, remembering the days when he drove a rusted Volvo with a "GARP" license plate and worked teaching English and coaching wrestling before he was able to devote himself to full-time writing.

Irving read from In One Person, the work-in-progress that will be his thirteenth novel. Before his reading and in a generous question-and-answer session that followed, Irving offered his thoughts on his work and life as a writer. Here's a sampling:

On The World According to Garp

"It is a novel about sexual anger, sexual hatred. It was written in the late 1970s after the sexual revolution, after gay liberation, but at a time people were still hated for perceived sexual differences... It is about sexual assassination, people hating people for their differences. Now as I work on my thirteenth novel, once again I'm with that subject."

On his process of beginning by writing the end

"I begin with the end and work my way back. I've begun this novel (In One Person) with the last two paragraphs, and I'm pretty confident after twelve novels that those two paragraphs won't change... I like to know the voice I'm in at the end so I can begin in a nicer voice and work up to that voice."

On first becoming a writer

Irving said that the first requirement of being a writer is "the recognition that you like to be, need to be, alone." He had this sense early in his life and at age fourteen began keeping notebooks, not of fiction, but of "physical descriptions of things, very imitative of nineteenth-century, long, plotted, visually described novels."

On film adaptations of his work

"I don't care if things are mishandled. I have very minimal interest in movies -- seeing them or writing them. I don't feel protective of my work when it becomes a movie. Anyone who sees a bad movie and thinks they've read the book, that's not a reader."

On work habits

"I write every draft by hand. It's a way of forcing myself to slow down. If I work on any kind of keyboard, even an old typewriter, I go too fast and make many mistakes."

On humor in literature

"The tendency to be in bad taste is constant. If you aren't funny, you shouldn't try to be funny. If you are funny, you will be even at the most inappropriate times. Clowns, witches, fools in Shakespeare's plays always show up when something bad is going to go down."

On future work

"I've never finished a novel without having at least two more in mind. I have many more titles than I'll ever use."

This story originally appeared as a post on the Vermont Quarterly blog. Subscribe for regular updates on campus life and a look behind the scenes of UVM's alumni magazine.